Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, absurd man

"Ne'er the self-same men shall meet; the years shall make us other men."
- Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was an absurd man, or at least he seemed to embrace many absurd ideas, particularly about the illusory nature of self.

Burton was one of the great Victorian adventurers. He played many roles – explorer, spy, soldier, translator, anthropologist, writer and perhaps half a dozen others. He was master of many languages – Arabic, Persian, Punjabi, Sindhi and more. Burton was tall and swarthy and with his language skills and mastery of disguise he could often pass as a native. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, for instance, a great risk for a European. He also was the first white man to enter the forbidden Muslim city of Harare in Somaliland. As an explorer he journeyed to find the source of the Nile on two different occasions and did find the source of the Congo. Burton was also a writer for life and wrote many books. He was the first translator of Arabian Nights.

We are only touching on the highlights here, but is ought to be clear that Burton lived a full life. We recently finished reading Christopher Ondaatje’s Sind Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Ondaatje retraces Burton’s early years in India and Pakistan and relates stories of Burton’s life and times in this region.

We were stuck with the many absurd aspects of Burton’s character. It is hard to describe Burton’s attitude, because he did not write much about himself. That has frustrated many biographers who have tried to figure out who he was.

But his life speaks volumes about how unconcerned Burton was about the notion of self and how, instead, he seemed to relish the experience of living without worrying about what it might mean or what his purpose was or even who he was. Burton was a curious cat who simply followed his whims.

Burton himself loved to play many different roles – hence that long list we mentioned up top. In many of his journeys he takes on different disguises, whether as a Muslim Hajji or a Pashtu horse trader, with gusto. He was good enough – not only with language and the physical aspects of his disguise, but also with the subtle things such as manner, stance, gestures and the like – to fool the natives into thinking he himself was a native.

He also dabbled in many different religions. This, too, frustrates his biographers who debate what religion Burton was. At different times he was a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Brahman Hindu, Sikh and Sufi. This is another absurd element of his life as he seemed to not take any commitment seriously. He took on these different religions more out of curiosity, it seems, just to see what it was like, to experience the rituals.

This curiosity and lack of inhibitions ran through his whole life. He was particularly curious about things that were “forbidden” and so he spends much time exploring the underside of societies, such as brothels. His detailed report on the boy brothels of Karachi wound up getting him kicked out of the army.

He also experimented with drugs, using cannabis and opium at different times. He liked to drink. He was like Hunter Thompson before there was Hunter Thompson. He was very interested in sex and wrote about different sexual practices. He translated the Kama Sutra. Again, this has created debate among his biographers about whether he was a drug addict, alcoholic or had some kind of sexual addiction.

What we see is something of an absurd man. A man who understands on some level that life has no meaning or purpose, that there is no self to sweat over or worry about. Hence, his ease with taking on so many different roles. We see a man who loved life and plunged right in, following his whims without worry.

Now, we’ll never really know what Burton thought. But we were inspired by the example of Burton’s life. Albert Camus wrote that “we all carry within us our prisons.” Burton was a man who slipped many of those self-imposed prisons. He was free and he was absurd.


  1. Richard Feynman is another good example of an absurd man in real life